This post is part of a blog tour organised by Random Things Blog Tours. I received a free copy of the book in return for an honest review.
‘Grief-stricken and on the verge of a breakdown, photographer Luda Managan leaves Australia for a commission, bringing her two teenage children to a remote, weather-ravaged but beautiful Scottish island.
‘Luda, isolated from her two resentful teenagers, turns her attention to the records from the seventeenth-century island witch hunts and the fragmented life stories of the executed women.
‘Min, her daughter, restless and strong, tries to fill up the space in their family left by her father. She soon finds comfort in both the sea and an unlikely friendship.
‘But the only thing that beautiful and gifted Darcy cares about is getting marks high enough for entry into university – one very, very far away from his mother. Until he meets the wild foundling Theo, who’s slowly self-destructing in a community that is both protective and violent towards him.
‘But when a tragic accident unleashes ghosts and the echoes of long-ago violence and betrayal into their lives, the Managans must confront their unspoken histories in order to survive.’
In Salt & Skin, by Eliza Henry-Jones, we follow the Managan family – mother Luda, 16-year-old son Darcy, and 14-year-old daughter Min – as they move from Australia to the tiny Scottish island of Seannay, following the death of husband and father Joshua.
Just a week into their residency on the archipelago, the Managans witness – and Luda documents – a horrible event that echoes through the two years to come, and compounds the traumas we come to learn Min and Darcy are already carrying.
Largely left to their own devices by their very un-trauma-informed mother, Min uses diving and swimming to cope, while Darcy throws himself into the mystery of island foundling Theo.
Luda, meanwhile, develops an interest in Seannay’s history and legends – particularly its seventeeth-century witches, about whom very little is actually known.
While the future may be coming for the island at a rate of knots, the family find that its history is similarly immanent.
Salt & Skin is a consuming, breathtaking read that unfalteringly spins many plates throughout.
For starters, while it’s set in the present day or thereabouts, both the distant past and near future are always close at hand.
The past persists in the islanders’ collective memory of the local women who were executed for witchcraft in the 1600s, the protective witch-marks that adorn the Managans’ house, and a couple of older residents’ recollections of occult activity in the generation preceding theirs.
The encroaching future is at the forefront of everyone’s minds as they witness the devastating effects of erosion, fear and plan for the inevitable next round of extreme weather, and consider the bleak likelihood that the islands will be lost to the sea one day.
Meanwhile, Luda sees it as her purpose to raise awareness of climate change through her photography, and Min earns herself the nickname “Garbage Girl” by collecting litter from the sea and shaming the islanders for not taking better care of their home.
Despite this constant sense that something bad is coming, the author’s skills are such that, when shocking things do happen, they nonetheless seem to come out of nowhere. They made me feel genuinely startled!
The novel’s setting is stunningly, vividly described. Similarly to The High House, by Jessie Greengrass, you’re not sure if you’re right to perceive it as so beautiful when it’s in the process of changing for the worse, but you’re also being shown what could be lost.
However, unlike the parents in The High House, who make especial provision for their children alongside trying to save humanity as a whole, Luda’s focus is primarily on the big picture. She is inattentive to, and even exploitative of Darcy and Min as she furthers her mission.
While Luda is a central character, Salt & Skin has a strong coming-of-age theme – something I always welcome – as we watch her children turn to alternative adults for company and guidance.
Min’s bond with elderly distant relative Cassandra stood out to me the most, and not just because I enjoyed their interactions. Their friendship stops Min’s social circle from being exclusively male, and is one of many important relationships between women that feature throughout the book.
Even so, as indicated previously, Darcy and Min are essentially trying to process trauma without professional help. Unsurprisingly, given her professional background, Henry-Jones expertly explores some of the ways trauma can manifest, notably depression, anxiety, withdrawal, avoidance, and distraction.
Theo, meanwhile, has no memories of the first seven-ish years of his life, and uses reckless and self-destructive behaviour, including substance abuse, as a coping mechanism.
I was also particularly impressed by the supernatural elements of the story. An island where you can see the scars of every injury individuals have ever had; witches calling on whales for assistance (very timely in light of recent orca activity); the mystery of Theo’s provenance – I found these enchanting, as well as compellingly eerie.
The ending leaves a lot of loose ends – necessarily, as this isn’t the kind of story that can be comprehensively tied up. However, I did find myself wishing for more resolution than there was, perhaps because I got so invested in the characters, and wanted to follow them further.
Salt & Skin is beautiful, brutal, and multi-layered.